ATLANTA -- Two teams who weren't supposed to be here and two pitchers who were thought to be finished -- the National League Division Series matchup between Houston and Atlanta seemed improbable not too long ago, but here it is.
Wednesday's Game 1 at Turner Field will open up a series with two of the surprise teams in baseball meeting for a berth in the NLCS.
"This has been such an unpredictable year, I couldn't begin to try and predict what will happen," Astros closer Brad Lidge said. "Nobody thought we would get this far, but here we are."
Roger Clemens / P
Weight: 235 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
At one point this year, both teams' seasons were going the wrong way. The Braves were six games under .500 on June 23, 6 1/2 games back in the NL East. The Astros were out of the NL Central race by the All-Star break and were in sixth place in the Wild Card chase before a 36-10 sprint to the finish line put Houston in the postseason.
"It's not likely we'll ever see a finish like that in our lifetimes," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "To be standing here today is incredible when you consider how far back we were."
Even the Game 1 starters, Houston's Roger Clemens and Atlanta's Jaret Wright, took improbable routes to get here. Clemens came out of retirement to pitch his hometown team into the playoffs. Wright, released by San Diego following a game at Houston's Minute Maid Park late last season, was unemployed when the Braves called.
Jaret Wright / P
Weight: 230 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"To be in this situation again after last year, and after my offseason when I thought I was pretty much done playing this game that I truly love, to be sitting here now and representing my hometown and a bunch of great guys in that clubhouse, I'm excited about it," Clemens said. "It's another new challenge, another step."
Clemens, who missed Sunday's regular-season finale because of stomach flu, said he will be ready to go.
"My body feels better," he said. "I would expect with another 24 hours I'll feel even better."
Clemens (18-4) led the league in winning percentage. Not counting his World Series win against the Braves in 1999, Clemens is 0-2 with a 4.67 ERA in three regular-season starts against Atlanta. He is 6-0 with a 3.79 ERA in his last 10 starts.
Wright is 9-3 with a 2.95 ERA since the break and has been beaten in just three of his last 24 starts.
"To have my name called in Game 1 and go up against [Clemens], I think it's an honor," Wright said. "I'm up for it. He's going to battle, I'm going to battle just as hard and see who comes out on top."
The Astros have never won a playoff series but come in as the hottest team in baseball. The Braves have won 13 consecutive division titles and have never lost a postseason series to the Astros.
"We just have to try and keep the string going, hopefully something magical will happen," said Craig Biggio, a career .130 hitter in four previous postseason appearances.
Biggio and teammate Jeff Bagwell, who owns a .174 career postseason batting average, are hoping to erase the memories of previous October woes.
"I don't think anything they did before will have any bearing this time," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "One doesn't have anything to do with the other. They've both been swinging the bat good lately and hopefully they'll continue to do so against Atlanta."
The Braves will see a different team than the one they saw earlier this season. Carlos Beltran was acquired to play center field. Garner replaced Jimy Williams and Lidge took over at closer in midseason.
"They've come a long way," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "When we saw them, [Andy] Pettitte was struggling at the time, in and out of the rotation, finally they operated on his arm. [Wade] Miller was still with them at the time, he's gone.
"It's amazing what they've done without two of their ace starters. You have to hand my counterpart Phil Garner a lot of applause actually because he's got them turned around."
Garner countered that Cox, a leading candidate for NL Manager of the Year, was worthy of applause.
"You have to hand it to him for the streak he has -- I don't know if you call this a streak or you call this a dynasty," Garner said. "What he's done in 13 years down here has been absolutely fantastic."
First pitch is scheduled for 4:09 p.m. ET.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com based in Houston. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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